The Irish Brigade at Antietam, September 17, 1862
With all of our CW-blogger friends commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam this week, here is my contribution to the mix via my latest piece written for Mort Kunstler’s new painting “Absolution Before Victory.” (Painting details)
As one of the most renowned units of the American Civil War, the Irish Brigade served in the 1st Division of the Second Corps in the Army of the Potomac. Many military historians consider its performance under fire to be extraordinary and some even argue that it was the bravest division of the entire Union Army. As a testament to its sacrifice, the 2nd Corps lost more men during the Civil War than any other unit in the Federal army. A large percentage of that number was left on the fields following the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
The massive number of casualties sustained by the 2nd Corps was not surprising, as the task that was given to the Irish Brigade during the Battle of Antietam was a formidable one. Around mid-morning on September 17, 1862 the Irish were set to move against a position that would later be referred to as “Bloody Lane.”
Over time, thousands of wagons had turned this once-serene road into a deadly defensive fortification. The Confederate officer occupying the road declared boldly that his men were going to stay there until the sun went down or victory was won.
As is often the case in war, the anticipated loss of men for this advance was eclipsed by the tactical need to occupy the position. Most of the Irish Brigade ranks were made up of practicing Catholics, so the act of “Last Rites” was an absolute necessity for this assault. With their beloved commander, General Thomas Meagher, riding among them, the brigade chaplain, Father William Corby, quickly rode along the line, offering a hasty absolution.
Although priests and chaplains routinely held religious services on the mornings before battle, the act of consecrating troops who were already engaged in battle was remarkable. Father Corby’s presence was an invaluable comfort to all who were about to fall on the killing fields of Sharpsburg. As the brigade stepped off, Confederate artillery opened fire on them and Irishmen began to drop beside the bodies of those brigades that had preceded them.
Amazingly, the Irish Brigade would repeat this act of devotion and courage during equally desperate charges at the battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Each time, Father Corby was there, offering spiritual strength through absolution.
Mort Künstler’s Comments:
With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam approaching, I decided to take the opportunity to paint the Irish Brigade. Although I had previously painted the famous “Fighting 69th” twice, I still believe there is more to their story.
The first Irish Brigade-themed painting I did was titled “Raise the Colors and Follow Me.” This piece depicted the unit with its commander General Thomas Meagher, who led the charge on the Sunken Road. I also painted Hancock the Superb, which depicted the Irish Brigade following that costly attack. After suffering terrible casualties, the 69th was forced to withdraw to a reserve position. General Meagher and General Israel Richardson, commander of the 1st Division of the 2nd Corps, were both wounded. General Winfield Scott Hancock, now in charge of the Division, rode along the lines to assess the situation and take command. Both of these paintings captured the courage and sacrifice of these brave Irishmen.
In looking for new subject matter, I suddenly realized that instead of painting another battle scene, I could depict the brigade prior to the battle. This scene would enable me to complete a trio of paintings: before, during, and after the Battle of Antietam; an unforgettable single day that produced the most casualties of any battle in American history.
My research began by reviewing some of the many books I had read on Antietam. I wanted to capture an important moment of exuberance just before the fight, a moment that would have been typical of the behavior of this famous brigade. In reading the autobiography of Father William Corby, the chaplain of the Irish Brigade and future president of Notre Dame, I finally found my moment. In his memoirs Father Corby states, “I gave rein to my horse and let him go at full gallop ‘til I reached the front of the Brigade, and passing along the line told the men to make an Act of Contrition. As they were coming toward me ‘double quick’ I had time only to wheel my horse for an instant toward them and give my poor men a hasty absolution and rode on with General Meagher into the battle.”
The center of attention in the painting is created by the exuberant action of General Meagher and Father Corby. For a dramatic effect, I deliberately limited the indication of bright sunlight to only the flags. The small white flag is a guidon for the 69th New York State Volunteers, the famous Fighting 69th. The green regimental flag adds a colorful accent and helps set the overall greenish mood to the painting. This also conveys an Emerald Isle feeling. When revisiting the battlefield to do research for this painting, I chose to paint this spot on the farm road in order to include the Roulette farmhouse and barn. Both are depicted in the far background, just under the raised arm of Father Corby.
One of the most difficult challenges I faced was how to create interest in the masses of soldiers who are mainly seen from the back view. As hands can be just as expressive as faces, I used the upraised hands and hats with their ornaments to help solve this problem, as well as maintain the overall mood of exhilaration and excitement. The completed painting is a tribute, not only to the valor of the men of the Irish Brigade, but also to their unwavering faith and conviction. There is a lot of story to tell here, and I hope I have succeeded in doing so in an interesting, accurate, and faithful manner.
Posted by ny5/pinstripepress
at 11:08 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 17 September 2012 11:11 AM EDT
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New book project
I am proud to announce that I am currently working on a very special book project with Rich Redmond, a Nashville session superstar and drummer for the Jason Aldean Band. Rich has routinely been voted to be among the best drummers in country music. As a huge fan, it is both an honor and a privilege to be a part of this venture. Eric and I have also started working on our follow-up baseball book, so my little fingers have been furiously typing away. As a result, posts here may be far less frequent. I will update you if/when I can.
UPDATE 7/24: Today Eric and I signed another contract with Kent State University Press to author "You Stink Too! Pro Football's Terrible Teams and Pathetic Players" and we are currently in discussion with KSUP to write "Baseball's Could Have Beens: Major League Mishaps, Misfortunes, and Mistakes." Stay tuned!
You may have noticed that posting here at Blog, or Die! has been less and less frequent over the last month or so. This has been due to the fact that the promotional commitments for "You Stink!" have required the majority of my attention. Eric and I are grateful for how well this book is doing as it has certainly exceeded both of our expectations. One of the funnest aspects of this project has been the You Stink! Blog. The majority of my blogging-time for the forseeable future will be focused on maintaining that blog. I invite you to visit us both there and on our Facebook page. (*Civil War and Revolution-era posts and projects may intermittently appear here when applicable.)
149 years ago today...
The Gettysburg Cyclorama is an epic, 360-degree circular oil-on-canvas painting that depicts the third day's battle known as "Pickett's Charge." It was created by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and originally debuted in 1884. One of the last surviving cycloramas in the United States, the curved-panel painting is a marvel of both art and science. Standing in the center, visitors are completely surrounded by a breath-taking, panoramic view that depicts, in meticulous detail, the triumphs and tragedies of July 3rd, 1863. The following panels were scanned from a postcard book that I purchased as a souvenir in 1978. View entire Cyclorama
PANEL 1: Federal infantry and artillery hurry toward the fighting at The Angle. Major General W.S. Hancock is shown with his staff at the left center and beyond, at the top of the picture, is Little Round Top.
PANEL 2: Pickett's Charge reached its climax when the Confederates, dressed in brown, followed their red battle flags into the Union line at the Copse of Trees. These trees seen in the upper left, mark the Union center, the objective of Pickett's Charge. Confederate General Armistead falls mortally wounded to the right of the flags.
PANEL 3: Pickett's Charge reaches its climax at The Angle. Union troops, in the foreground, meet the advancing Confederates and hurl them back. The Codori buildings may been seen at the top of the card.
PANEL 4: The Angle, in the foreground, and the field of Pickett's Charge. The Confederates, beyond the exploding ammunition chest and advancing across the fields, have come from Seminary Ridge marked by the trees and smoke in the background.
PANEL 5: Tradition holds that French artist, Paul Philippoteaux, identified himself with the Cyclorama by portraying himself as the Union officer standing beneath the tree to the right. He watches Pettigrew's Division advancing from Seminary Ridge.
PANEL 6: The stone wall north of The Angle and the Bryan barn. Wounded are being evacuated on mules.
PANEL 7: Arnold's Rhode Island Battery in action north of The Angle and Copse of Trees.
PANEL 8: Hospital. A surgeon amputates the leg of a wounded man in the shed on the right.
PANEL 9: A New York battery gallops towards the fighting near the Copse of Trees.
PANEL 10: Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, as shown with his staff on the right at the edge of the Wheatfield. Meade's Chief of Artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, watches the fighting in The Angle from the gray horse in the foreground.
Battlefield before bike trail
Today I sent a letter to the Editor at The Free Lance-Star newspaper defending the National Park Service’s recent decision to add a top layer of pea-gravel to Lee’s Drive. This was mainly done to help curb speeding and it also improved the historical appearance of the park. Many local cyclists, joggers and stroller moms have voiced their displeasure with the new road surface. I believe their opinions are somewhat misguided as they tend to look at these Civil War Battlefields as recreational parks and forget what their real purpose is. These are not bike trails or nature preserves and although both the NPS and I support the idea of locals enjoying the battlefield, their opinions should not dictate how the park is preserved or maintained. They are 'guests' who are simply taking advantage of a convenient exercise location on a road less traveled. Stay tuned...
UPDATE 6/11: My letter (see transcript below) ran in today's issue of The Free Lance Star. I am already getting emails from both sides of the argument.
Let us not forget what Lee Drive is all about
Recently, some in our community have taken the National Park Service to task for its decision to resurface Lee Drive using gravel.
The goal, as Park Superintendent Russ Smith describes it, is to calm traffic through the Fredericksburg Battlefield.
Given that Lee Drive currently holds claim to roughly half of all the speeding tickets the Park Service hands out, this seems an ideal solution indeed.
Many of those opposed to the new gravel surface use the road chiefly to jog, bike, and the like.
As a local battlefield guide specializing in wheelchair tours, I feel that it is important for us to remember that Lee Drive is the main thoroughfare of a Civil War Battlefield, not simply another recreational park or nature preserve.
The primary purpose of Lee Drive is not to provide local residents with a place to exercise, nor to serve as a convenient shortcut during rush-hour traffic.
Its purpose, like that of the rest of the battlefield's roads, is to allow visitors access to the multiple historic sites that dot the landscape of this hallowed ground where thousands of men died.
While it is great that residents utilize Lee Drive for recreational purposes, such purposes should not dictate how the road is maintained. The recent resurfacing not only serves as an improved safety factor, but also enhances the aesthetic appearance of the park. This benefits everyone.
Fredericksburg is no ordinary place, and our battlefield is no ordinary park. I commend the Park Service and Superintendent Smith for their skillful stewardship of this one-of-a-kind natural and historic treasure and am grateful for the newly revamped road that runs through it.
I also ask those who question the resurfacing to keep in mind why Lee Drive is there at all.
The writer is owner, All-Access Battlefield Tours.